March 15th, 2020
In the confines of a studio-basement apartment lived a kitty named Ms. Sausage-Toes. She was left alone again to roam around in a familiar state of unfamiliarity. Cardboard boxes littered bare, uninhabited rooms. The move had concluded before she even realized it was happening. Time and memory were fleeting to a pet, mere witnesses to the loosely related happenings of their human intimates. She didn’t know it, but her first birthday drew near. Her Snuggle-Mother was nowhere to be found. The memories of climbing atop her titties every morning were leaving her. Soft as pillows they were, yes, but where were they now? A few days of her gone was a long time for a forgetful kitty. Were the titties for this kitty stowed in another cardboard box? Were they left at the old home? Where people and memories go proved salient to one that never goes anywhere.
A mattress covered in disheveled bedding laid in the corner. There Ms. Sausage-Toes perched, surrounded by a trove of empty boxes. They were converted into little kitty homes complete with cut-out windows, doors, and cute, doodled roofing, fences, and gas meters. They were quaint, forgettable homes held together with tape. They formed a kitty-sized model of a suburb during the ’08 housing crisis. They were good homes, empty and open to the world. They were easy to move, easy to leave, and easy to throw away. Flatten the tattered and the scratched for recycling and the world felt a lot less cluttered. Not so easy with an apartment, especially in Chicago. Yes, what a mess it must have been to throw their old home away.
The only thing unboxed in the kitchen were two bowls for kitty food and water. No smells from a morning breakfast or even a late dinner; just the scent of a litter-box housing the personal fecal machinations from one Ms. Sausage-Toes. She approached these accouterments, disinterested and distracted. Something burned within; something that would not leave her. She was in the throes of heat. Standing in the kitchen, her one recollection was of the Male-Man who fed her this morning. The Male-man who laid beside her Snuggle-Mother on the mattress and produced all her lovely kitty homes. When he left this morning, she felt the urge to scratch him, nuzzle her oozing rear end against his ankle. Beyond the walls, one could hear her cat-calls, the sound almost like a child’s voice begging, pleading, “Hello? Hello?”
* * *
There on the Chicago streets, the Male-Man was on the move. His human moniker was Cain and though he left the confines of his new apartment to make money, he was unemployed. But it had always been that way. Even as a small Mexican boy, he was always moving about making money somehow. Back then, it was enough just to leave his childhood home behind. He was a product pusher, like the famed Tamale Guy, who was something of a local fixture in Chicago and a personal hero of his, moving where he wanted and selling with the same license. Cain reviled the product America pushed on so many youths; college, an enclosed office space, fixed salaries and mortgages. He flowed with the city, away from bi-monthly checks, annoying coworkers, and sensitivity training. But over time, he discovered a world full of intangible walls, places he could not get to and lives where he could never belong. Gradually, he began to understand the walls within himself. He could only move so far and could only sell so much to so few. As he neared thirty, he felt those limitations now more than ever.
Cain never traveled farther than Evanston and only recently moved out of his childhood neighborhood in Little Village. He cosigned a lease with his white girlfriend for an apartment in a white neighborhood. The bills were coming in. Time was money. Chicago was a bastion of capitalism, and he was a creature of that sick system. Better to spend one’s life with queer connotations than to grow weary making the world sane. He took things day by day and accepted their sullen culmination. Still, he had begun to notice how differently he felt about his differing circumstances.
Walking south on North Wolcott Avenue, Cain scrolled through his texts for those pulling at him for product. He noticed the long-distance service charges, messages from his girlfriend, the Snuggle-Mother to one Ms. Sausage-Toes. Her name was Adaline and she worked as a barista for Dark Matter Coffee. An opportunity arose to travel abroad and study coffee cultivars grown in El Salvador. She believed it was a chance for bigger things. She yearned for a promotion beyond the service industry. On the eve of moving in with Cain, she took the flight from Midway. She had been gone a few days, texting him sporadically. Last night Cain received a message from her that read, “I miss the babies,” punctuated with a frowny face. He had no idea what it meant.
Wearing a full satchel of product, Cain sucked on a Li Hing Mui, a dried plum covered in a sweet, sour, and salty powder. The potent combination made his taste buds wince with nostalgia. It evoked childhood memories of dropping into bodegas to buy treats with borrowed money. They used to call them Chinese Candies, and they were one of his many products. Each Chinese Candy contained 200 mg of THC.
Purveyors of capitalism made seamless transitions from buyer to seller. Why not get high on your own supply? The whole system depended on it. Adaline sold caffeine, the world’s most prominent drug, and drank all she could. The business of legalized marijuana was lush with stoners turned sellers and the so-called Male-Man was certainly both.
Cain reached West Augusta Boulevard and passed the local Shit Fountain, a sculpture by artist Jerzy Kenar. Sitting atop a marble pillar marked with the piece’s full title was a swirling pile of dog shit molded in bronze, a trickle of water seeping from the pinched tip. Approaching the red light, Cain received a text from Claudia, an old friend of his, teaching a few blocks away.
Brazil-021 was a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school located in the West Town area. It ran in a quaint studio space on Chicago Avenue. Inside, a beginner class waited anxiously against the cushion mats lining the wall. They fidgeted in Gis and white belts. The instructor, Claudia, was a Brazilian born woman in her late twenties. She earned her brown belt in her native country before traveling stateside to train and work at the school. She was concluding a private session with a young Muslim woman who wore a black burka underneath her Gi. None of the class knew her name and they were specially instructed not to step on the mat while she trained. Her husband sat quietly in the corner on a spread of parent benches.
The school’s slogan was “Preparing people for life.” In the final minutes of every class, they huddled in formation for the instructor to begin a sermon, drawing on past experiences either too specific or too abstract. But the message remained the same, develop your craft, and thus develop one’s self.
Claudia was the only female instructor at the school, and it was not an accident that she was hand-picked for this private session. Still, she valued every opportunity to teach. With slow and deliberate movements, her tone was decidedly muted as they finished their last escape drill. Kneeling together on the matted floors, they spoke quietly for no one to hear. Claudia was not much for sermons. There were enough people sermonizing what was good and bad, projecting their experiences onto them. What they experienced in teaching and learning was theirs to cherish.
The beginner class took the mat, and Claudia noticed Cain loitering against the front window. She picked one of her blue belts to oversee tumbling warm-ups. They lined up and began hurling themselves onto the mat, using their momentum to roll off their backs. The front door opened, the sounds of bodies impacting the floor.
“You are late or early. I cannot tell with you,” Claudia said.
“I’m on availability, not a schedule. What are you on?” Cain said.
“Technique and repetition my friend. I teach, I learn, and I enjoy class every day. Need a Gi?”
“Are you trying to get me to submit?”
“Jiu-jitsu is not just submissions. It’s escapes, it’s transitions, it’s control. My students would love your treats.”
“People don’t always pay for the things they love. I move product, I don’t get people high. Like your beau; she makes wedding cakes, she doesn’t marry people.” Cain looked through the glass to see a dozen or so men and women lying down, following core exercises with tepid unanimity. “What’s Mara been on lately?”
“Rest. No more late nights for us. No more drinks and soon no more treats.”
“Escaping the night life? This a control thing or one of those transitions you mentioned?”
“We’re having a baby.”
Jiu-jitsu was a practice full of momentary intimacy. Two people communicated through a physical and mental struggle. In presenting vigor and vulnerability, one learned more about the discipline, themselves, and their partner. The more you understood BJJ, the more it became part of you. When Claudia and Mara first rolled on the mat, they gradually developed a bond. Mara operated an independent cake business, having been referred to Brazil-021 by a client. Claudia had just arrived in the country when Mara put on a white belt. They rolled together as Mara exposed herself to the discipline and culture behind it. They got drinks after class, where Claudia exposed herself to Chicago, cakes, and Mara. They gradually formed a greater intimacy beyond just sparring partners.
“Congrats, but who exactly is ‘we’?” Cain said.
“Only Mara is pregnant. I just watch and love.”
“I’m talking about the sperm donor. If it’s complicated, I’ll leave it alone.”
“No, it’s simple. It was her husband.”
The finality made momentary intimacy precious. It was free from the numbing effects of forever. Mara had made a marital vow to love her husband forever, but forever was a long time. She grew numb from their relationship’s tedious repetitions. She transitioned to Claudia and looked back only once. One momentary act of intimacy to create something precious.
“She got him to knock her up?” Cain said.
“It’s simple, he had needs and she had hers,” Claudia said.
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat I guess. The problem is you’re still skinning a cat. Does he know she’s pregnant?”
“I don’t know. He still tries to see her.”
“She’s his wife.”
“She’s no one’s anything. She wants a divorce. He knows this. She wants to raise the baby with me.”
“But he’s the father,” Cain argued.
“What does he know of father? You are what you practice. He is no more father than you are Jiu-Jitsu student. He’s like writer that does not write or a Chef that does not cook.”
“Or a teacher without a class. I’m sure you gotta bounce.”
“We must make him go. We must make him understand that he’s not father.”
“He still loves her?”
“This is not about love. This is about the baby, our baby. His love is not our problem.”
“At least your problems are unique. Divorce and babies seem so common.”
“What would you say to him?”
“My heart goes out to both of you, but my problem is paying the rent. It’s a decidedly common problem, but it’s not a simple one. If you can’t get a man to bust loads and bust out, then you got a problem I can’t solve.”
“You’re not here to solve problems. You’re here for money.”
The class began to gather around for their first lesson while a few older and out-of-shape students tried to catch their breath. Claudia monitored this from the outside as Cain dug through his satchel.
“You called me?” Claudia said.
“Butt-dial,” Cain replied.
“You are a funny thing. You call out for nothing like a baby.”
Cain handed Claudia a baggie of five beige patties made of peanut marzipan. Based on the De La Rosa peanut candy, each one contained 50 mgs of THC. Claudia nibbled on the soft treat before concealing the rest in her Gi.
“I thought Mara had a nut allergy.”
“Her husband did, but I love these. I needed to treat myself today for tomorrow, who knows. This is my last day of classes.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s on the move my friend, like you. The Rona is on the move.”
Cain went west on Chicago Avenue, feeling a buzz from his phone; a text from an ambiguous contact. This was a common occurrence for a product pusher, with a series of vague questions and answers. But these texts were different. The number had a 219 area code used in Munster, Indiana. He saved the contact under Ms. Sausage-toes, Adaline’s cat having been born in that area and bought from a family farm. Its ambiguity was matched only by the content itself, inexact and frivolous. He never replied, never tried to find out who was behind the messages. Whatever their motive was, he knew it wasn’t about product.
The text read: “Where is the virus? It was here before we even knew it was coming, until it touched us from particles floating in the air. Spooky maybe, a cause for concern, sniffles or maybe death, but it’s not what the virus is.”
Cain reached the North Western Avenue crossing where sheltered bus-stops stood in macabre unison. They were temporary palaces for the pauper, glass walls covered in disconcerting ads and indiscernible graffiti. They were desperate homes to destitution and disease. The buses moved on while the homeless loitered, going nowhere. They held up cardboard signs that nobody read, yearning for eye contact and loose change. Cain abhorred the homeless who moved about the streets as he did. They asked for money with nothing to push but their shameless desperation. And they would still be there, long after Cain returned to his new apartment and hungry kitty.
Ms. Sausage-Toes once texted that the phrase “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps” originally meant to try something completely absurd. Ironic that it has become the knell for those stuck asking the same inquiries again and again. Have a second, sir? Have any change?
With a timid exaltation, Cain came to realize that he had given up a home to gain a world. He was part of a lineage of homeless product pushers, dating back to when his Spanish ancestors left home to move across the sea. Their product to the new world was Catholicism, disease, rats, and almonds which spread through South America and Mexico. Cain’s grandfather was a failed Mariachi musician turned street performer on the streets of Tijuana. White tourists could find him moving about with a car battery, offering drunk dummies a shock for a few pesos. He made enough to stay comfortably broke through his 20s before figuring it was better to be broke in the wealthiest country in the world. He left home for the land of whites, started a family in a brown neighborhood, and died before the age of 42 in his sleep.
Cain’s father was a first-generation Mexican-American. He too became a mover stuck in immovable poverty where the only reliable product was drugs. At the height of the crack epidemic, he sold rock to poor people-of-color in the southside and made more money in one year than his father ever did pandering to rich white tourists. Cain’s mother became the local floozy in her teens, moving the one product she possessed to survive. How they crossed paths was left to the imagination. They both had something to push and it became a push and pull between the two.
A text from Kenneth steered Cain farther west toward Humboldt Park. Though the contact remained nameless, the message bore the sender’s distinct personality. He was a declarative man-child in a declarative time. He bristled and embraced the sterile communication of phones the way he did every necessary evil. He rarely read responses and had not answered a phone call since Bush’s second term in office.
Kenneth’s text read: “I’m making plantains for breakfast and I need the heat. My alias is Conquest-19 now.”
Cain and Conquest-19 were childhood friends through ever changing aliases. If Cain had not recovered Conquest-19’s lost wallet, he might never have known Kenneth was his birth name. He was a Hip-hop artist, creating beat tapes and abstract flows while working from home. His slew of aliases was one of the many curious complexities of a self-involved artist. He was most certainly that regardless of the alias, a walking quandary of contradictions. He never cared to sell anything in his life, not his art or even himself. He felt truly beyond capitalism, believing that whatever he bought into was always his to own in the first place. And he was at least honest with his delusions.
Cain moved east down Iowa Avenue to Archie’s Tavern, a neighborhood dive bar. Across the street, Conquest-19 stood atop the steps of his three-story apartment building. He looked awkward in the open air; his eyes squinted at the banality beyond his thoughts.
“This sun is bumpin’ even in the cold. I used to sit out here in the summer to catch cuties burning cigarettes over yonder. The type of woman that’ll make you superstitious, make you start believing in witches, curses, fate,” Conquest-19 said.
“You’re just standing out here to be seen. The bar is closed. There’s nothing to see,” Cain said.
Conquest-19 looked down curiously as though he were acknowledging Cain’s presence for the first time. He wore matching red long-sleeve V-neck, jogger shorts and slip-ons. He looked like a model for Supreme gear with bloodshot eyes and yellow stained teeth.
“You may be right for the wrong reasons. The trouble is you don’t know how to be right or wrong. And neither do I,” Conquest-19 said.
“I thought I’d let myself in,” Cain said.
“The door would’ve been locked. My crib is not for the world no more,” Conquest-19 mused.
“Get robbed?” Cain asked.
“My people were robbed since inception. Robbed, framed, and brought to justice for the same crime.”
“You brought me here. You know what I carry.”
Conquest-19 gazed back up for one more squint in the distance. “People always bring more than what they carry.” Saying nothing more, Conquest-19 turned to walk up the apartment stairs, leaving the door open for Cain to follow.
Inside the 2nd story flat, the living room, dining room, and kitchen formed one main space. There were four doors leading to the bathroom, bedroom, studio and balcony. There was a U shaped sectional surrounding a wood grain coffee table. It faced three muted TVs of varying models and sizes. The left TV broadcasted the local KSAT 12 channel covering an impending lockdown of Chicago in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic. The right TV was tuned into CGTN, a Chinese news station covering the ongoing lockdown in Wuhan. The middle TV showed 3D images of COVID-19 under an electron microscope, the virus a bright burgundy red.
There were snaps and pops from a record player spinning Robert Johnson’s track “They’re Red Hot”. The flat felt juxtaposed from the omnipresence of the world. Details seemed so precisely placed and purposefully hampered like the set of a play. It was disarray by design, less a home and more an extension of an encumbered mind.
Conquest-19 stood at the stove under the sterile gleam of the kitchen light. There was a platter of plantains soaked and mashed into circular chips next to a hot pan of canola oil. Dropped in, the plantains bubbled into a combustion of darker hues. He stood quietly, monitoring them with a pair of tongs as Cain took a seat.
On the coffee table was drug paraphernalia and stacks of comic books. It was a collection of critically acclaimed works from varying publishers and artists such as Allen Moore’s Watchmen, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, DC’s Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross and Chris Claremont’s X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills.
“Fixin’ a bonfire outside, them shits are the wood,” Conquest-19 said as he plopped the freshly cooked plantains onto a paper-towel-covered plate. “The whites use comics to rewrite their glorious society. They color their flawed ideals with costumes, powers, and self-righteousness,” Conquest-19 said.
“That’s a simplified narrative,” Cain said.
“And theirs is a complicated one full of fake-ass consequences. Poor suckas loot stores and get beat up by a man-spider? A privileged white kid sees his parents shot up and dresses like a flying rat? Lives, planets, and universes dissipate on single pages and mean nothing?”
“Art is complicated.”
“Artists are complicated. The world they perceive ain’t shit.”
“They say perception is reality.”
“They’re wrong; it’s about control even if it’s fabricated. The only control an artist has is when they decide to stop creating. Anything else is just a way to feed their egos and sell as the white man does.”
“Sell to who? The market is diverse, and so are their superheroes. They’re getting woke.”
“They cling to wokeness like a fad. They control diversity the way they control space, time, death, justice, good and evil. It’s only there to sell another issue with another false narrative.”
“But then, so what? Even if the market or woke culture pressured them, they still did. Is that not a good thing?”
The stove turned off, and Conquest-19 left the plate of plantains to cool. He took a seat on the adjoining sectional. “No. Because it means nothing. It’s not real. Superman gets bludgeoned to death by Doomsday and comes back. The comic cosmos gets rebooted and retconned again and again. Steve Rogers comes back as Captain America, Hal Jordan comes back as Green Lantern, and Peter Parker will always be Spider-man. They go back no matter how black they go.”
“If it’s not real then why does it bother you so much?”
Stopping a moment, Conquest-19 grabbed his copy of Infinite Crisis by Geoff Johns. He held the book like a preacher reciting a sermon with a bible. “I read these things because I wanted something authentically free. Free from the control of the real. I wanted to escape my reality. But there is no escape, and there is no freedom. Not for me and not for these books. I can’t control that. I don’t believe in control and soon they won’t either. The virus is here, and that fire will burn hot tonight,” He said, chucking the comic over his shoulder. “Did you call me earlier?”
“Butt-dial, and I’m not saving you under Conquest-19 until I know what it means.”
“My new alias, my personal, self-serving narrative. Do you know how the conquistadors conquered your people?”
“The Aztecs? I don’t know; guns, horses, other brown people?”
“Smallpox, measles, mumps,” Conquest-19 pointed at the middle television. “It was viruses, not whites who conquered this continent.”
“Those were some dirty motherfuckers.”
“People bring their experiences with them wherever they go. Europe had developed antibodies for centuries from trade with Africa and Asia. That’s what’s happening now.” Conquest-19 pointed to the set of CGTN then traced a path to KSAT 12. “Thousands take Columbus’s journey across the oceans every week. Previously isolated parts of the world are now kissing cousins. Rather ironic that a country so intent on control created the ultimate nullifier of that idea.”
Cain thought of the massive squares in China. They seemed tireless, endless, inextinguishable. The sheer mass of Asia’s movement dwarfed the world. “They say it was from wet markets.”
“A maelstrom of plants, animals, and people compressed inside commerce. People always bring more than their wares. Some believe it was from a bioweapons lab; man’s ultimate attempt to control nature.”
“You think China did this on purpose?”
“This virus is like capitalism. It transcends ethnicity and borders. The walls of homes and the privacy of people mean nothing. Like money, you either have the virus or don’t. China was just the first to understand the truth. It was beyond them.”
“While I appreciate your idiot’s guide through history, what’s this have to do with you?”
“The mentality of a conquered people is one of resentment and willful ignorance. I don’t resent the virus, nor will I pretend like it doesn’t exist. I must accept it the way I accept all uncontrollable realities. I have always been a harbinger of chaos, and the virus must be promoted the same way. As you are a conquistador of capitalism, I will be a conquistador of Covid-19. If I could move to Wuhan, I would.”
“I don’t think you’re welcome. It doesn’t matter if you promote God, money or fuckin Yao Ming. You’re still a black dude who’s never left the hood.”
“Columbus was an Italian man who shipwrecked to Portugal and explored the world for Spain. Kal-el was a Kryptonian who adopted America and protected the world as Superman. And I was black dude imprisoned in this skin, ready now to conquer humanity’s control as Conquest-19.”
“What if there’s a vaccine?”
“What is a vaccine if not society’s attempt at control? Create one, and another strand will come. They’re not even alive. They move through the air and stick on surfaces senselessly. They multiply and are eliminated in moments of disregarded happenstance. Covid-19 is the pure arbitrary nature of reality beyond what we try to project. That is what my art will become. That is what I will become.”
“You don’t think this is a little-“
“Another word popped into my head. It’s not real.”
“The real for people is what they can control. What they can’t does not matter. The god you worshiped used to matter. Who you fucked used to matter. Your gender used to matter. The control over them has waned, and now none of them do.”
“Does it matter to be black?”
“My people fight for control, not equality. Our history and future are beyond us. We will give in before it does. Racism will stop once race no longer matters.”
“But you care about race?”
“And I’m a racist.”
“But your alias will change again. It always does.”
“You’re right. What am I if not everything I rail against? I can’t control that.” A shrewd grin came across Conquest-19’s face.
A text from Ms. Sausage-Toes read: “I grew up avoiding my mother but loving her food. Now I’m alone, hungry with no will to feed myself.”
Fondling through his satchel, Cain pulled out a red candy box laminated in plastic and branded with a burning weed symbol. Inside were red pill-shaped candies flavored with cinnamon, like the Hot Tamale candy of old. Each portion contained 100 mg of THC. Placing the box on the table, Cain rose, more than ready to leave.
“So comes the heat of spring. My Gma used to fuck with these heavy when I was a kid. There was always a glass dish full of them,” Conquest-19 said.
“How is she?” Cain said.
Conquest-19’s Grandmother raised him and his three older brothers in her two-bedroom slum. She forced him to help in the kitchen and taught him to cook plantains. She called his comics harmful rubbish, discarding them at every opportunity. Conquest-19 resented living with her, but it was the only home he knew. He was much different now, and so was she, even when the slum remained a sole constant in her life.
“She’s adjusting, but it’s not the same.” His Gma resided at Lincoln Park Rehabilitation Center. She was diagnosed with dementia, her health steadily declining. “I just wish we didn’t have to pay so much for her to be miserable. She couldn’t live by herself. We got her a nurse, but she would just bicker and fire them for the goofiest shit. My brothers all flew in to get her out. They’re all gone now. It’s just the two of us.”
“Do you visit?”
“We’ll talk on the phone, but it’s getting worse. Sometimes she answers speaking Italian.”
“She speaks Italian?”
“Sometimes, sometimes she won’t say nothing, just keeps me on the line.”
“She likes having you there.”
“I don’t always have much to say, if you can believe that.”
“I wouldn’t tell her any of this. She’ll worry about you.”
“She worries regardless. It’s all she can do now. She’s of a stubborn breed full of delusions. She’d rented the same spot for 30 years like it was her home to own. She’s in denial, the way one is when their heart is broken. She’s a survivor; she just can’t accept how lonely it is to be one.”
“Sounds like someone I know. Go see her. Get out of this place, stretch your legs, get some fresh air, and maybe a little sun.”
“You act like we’ll have a choice soon. This is my one haven of denial. I pay for my misery too.”
“We pay for what we live with, but we don’t always own it. Don’t forget you’re renting too. You’re on borrowed time in a borrowed home.”
Cain snagged a plantain off the plate and left. The door locked behind him, and he was glad to be moving on. If he could only mull over the taste of plantains still lingering in his mouth. We lived in strange times. No, we lived in stupid times. Everything waned into a still lull for fools to objectify alone. We packed ourselves into cute boxes and tracked our wants and needs delivered in similarly cute packages.
Going south, Cain could see a cross perched atop the Holy Protection Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyivan Patriarchy, burgeoning over the apartments of North Rockwell Street. Stubborn pockets of Eastern-Europeans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans remained steadfast in gentrifying neighborhoods..They rented shoddy apartments and erected eloquent estates to the one above all. Nearby was the Church of St. Nicholas, St. Helen, St. Marks, St. Malachy, and St. Stephen. There was the Church of God, Northside Church of Christ, Village Church Chicago, Renewal Church of Chicago, Urban Village Church, and the Wicker Park Lutheran Church along with the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral and the Holy Innocents Catholic Church. These were god-fearing people who kept their prayers close and their people closer. Turn to the made-up truth deemed divine in the mind, when logic gave way to life’s experiment with no clear hypothesis or conclusion.
Another text from Ms. Sausage-Toes read: “They say I should treat my body like a temple. Let the guilty congregate for worship, donations, and confessions. An urge burns within. I want to let it smolder like the Notre Dame.”
Cain passed a yellow sign with a target centered on a vicious rodent. The sign read: “Warning Target: Rats, If Rats can’t feed, Rats can’t breed”. Cain’s mother used to say that nothing thrived in Chicago but rats, vice, and disease. She used to compare The Great Chicago Fire to the divine smiting of Sodom and Gomorrah. Emerging from the ashes was a city designed for size and expanse, allowing for alleyways to siphon waste and rats from the open streets.
Cain’s mother believed that the city was rife with sinners. It allowed them to thrive on the meek. All here were abused and forced to own their abuse. She thought of being a nun as a child, wanting to sanctify her virginity to the Lord. She became pregnant with Cain at seventeen. She owned her sins but not hers alone. She was beaten and subsequently abandoned by Cain’s father shortly after the baby’s birth. He was a mover, not a father, husband, or prodigal son expected to return. Cain’s mother was but a quick lay. Cain was another meek soul for someone else to thrive on. Neither Cain nor his mother would ever know his father’s grander design for a better life. He committed the cardinal sin of the abused by relinquishing his fault. He died believing that. His body was found partly nibbled in an alleyway when Cain was ten. For him to die among folded cat homes, waste and rats was just how the city cleansed itself. Cain would have to move on believing that when nothing else made sense.
There was no new texts when Cain found his way back on Chicago Avenue. Across the street was the Starlounge Coffee Bar. Inside, A long bar stretched down the full length of the building’s left side. Patrons sat on stools while baristas made drinks. There was table seating on the right and merchandise displays, two bathrooms, and a stairway leading to the second floor. On the walls were scuff marks and coffee splatters. Local art dangled on protruding nails and mounted speakers played the album Trio Mocoto. A back doorway led to the balcony patio. A quaint outdoor space was crammed with picnic tables, each painted by a local Chicago artist.
The outdoor space played host to a bi-weekly farmers market, a presiding of artist, craftsmen, and foodies. Stationed at picnic tables, they displayed their wares of fresh produce, prints, crafted jewelry, and mocktails made with iced coffee.
A woman sat alone on a picnic table painted with a big smiling Cheshire cat by the artist Slangism. Her name was Sloane, a former sous-chef in Chicago’s culinary scene. She operated a table for Rattle Pans BBQ, a food truck co-founded by her and her fiancé. She ran the operation while he worked shifts as an inner-city firefighter. On the table was a spread of sausage samples served on toothpicks, carnitas and brisket served in plastic sample cups along with business cards and stickers printed with their fiery red pan logo.
Cain approached, mocktail in hand. Sloan looked up from her phone and greeted him with a smile. “Have you got any gum chum?” Sloane said.
“You don’t chew gum; you smoke cigarettes,” Cain said.
“And you eat weed and prefer drinks with alcohol. There is no permanence in what we have or what we want.”
“Or what we sell.” Cain circled the table and sat alongside Sloane. Underneath was a cooler filled with raw sausages packaged in fives using varying ingredients like green Thai curry, mole and chorizo. “A little booze in this would go a long way but this kinda hits. Want a taste?”
“Don’t you know there’s a virus on?” Solane said accusatively.
“I don’t know if there’s virus in this. I don’t even know what it’s called.”
“It’s a Spiced Russian. There’s Anise-peppercorn syrup, iced coffee, half-and-half cold foam, orange rind, pulverized black pepper, and some orange bitters.”
“That’s why you’re a chef.”
“I care about things you don’t. What you eat and drink may seem irrelevant to you but the beauty of irrelevance is always there to see.”
They sat there, unassuming, unnoticed by the patrons waiting for expressos. It was a meager market with paltry attendance. There was a charm to middling commerce antithetical to Cain’s philosophy. They remained still at stations, for strangers who never arrived.
“How can you sit here for so long?” Cain said.
“Soak it in. Looks like this will be the last one of these for a while,” Sloane said.
“This virus is getting real,” Cain said.
“That’s what our Governor says. Though I don’t know what that means to someone like you. A young, unemployed drug dealer.”
“I didn’t even know it existed a week ago. Adaline told me about it, before she left.” Cain paid no attention to news outlets. He received a phone call from Adaline at the Midway International Airport waiting at the gate for a connecting flight to Miami toward El Salvador. The name of the virus scrolled endlessly under CNN coverage. It was the last time he heard her voice.
“Hm. How is your traveling companion?” Sloane asked.
“Adaline? Fine I guess. I’m trying not to bother her. She texted last night, said she missed the babies, whatever that means,” Cain said.
“Maybe she meant the kitty, and you.”
Cain used to resent pets and relationships. He started resenting the city and considered getting out, finding his way to Austin or Seattle. He thought of moving on from edibles too. He could have ridden the wave of another product, wherever it took him. He could have ridden that wave ‘til it broke. That was before he met Adaline; before he signed a lease and started paying for cat food.
“Can you believe I got stuck at home with a cat?” Cain said.
“No but home life has looked worse on other people. It’s nice to see you stuck with something other than edibles. You don’t know how to settle though. Your mind wanders like a kid lost in a store,” Sloane said.
“If anyone asks, tell them I lost my mom,” Cain said.
“I’d call her when you can. I’m sure she misses your voice. There’s something farcical about text. Without your voice, you’re just blowing smoke.”
A gardener from another table approached Sloane for a sample. Cain retrieved the pack of Chinese candies from his satchel and offered one to Sloane. They savored the pungent treats as the slow flow of customers once again grinded to a halt.
“This beats gum. What do I owe you?” Sloane said.
“Lend me your voice. Get my mind off this virus,” Cain said.
“Oh let me see. Do you remember my thing with fire? I’m sure I told you about the accident on my Father’s property.” Sloane lived with her Father on a 10-acre plot of overgrowth in Gary, Indiana. A retired airman, he was obsessed with military history and talked endlessly about the firebombing missions over Dresden and Toyohashi.
“The man loved his country and loved explosions. I remember finding some leftover fireworks from the Fourth of July.” They were deep into a summer drought and she neglected to wet the ground beforehand. All she lit up was a single Black Snake; its infinitesimal flame barely perceptible in the daylight. The patch of seared grass grew and engulfed the surrounding terrain into an uncontrollable blaze. It took firefighters hours to haul in the water tanks. “I stayed back and watched the smoke rise; listened to the sound of burning. And through all the fuss, guess what happened? I had my period.”
“I don’t know if I would’ve remembered this or tried to forget it,” Cain said.
“Since then, fire just turns me on. I get a little wet. It’s almost Pavlovian. It was an accident, but aren’t all turn-ons? Lots of sex by candlelight and cigarettes with strangers.”
“And you know fire is the stimulus?”
“I’m not conducting an experiment. I just know.”
“How do you know?”
“I weep for your companion, truly. You may know less about women than you do COVID. Our turn-ons are more binary than we may want to admit. It’s either there or it isn’t. You’re either turned on or you’re not. You’re either sick or you’re not.”
“I think you’re sick.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t, but that’s the rub. People get COVID and die while the rest move on without even knowing they have it.
“Imagine if that’s the tell-tale sign. If everybody infected got wet or a hard-on. We’d probably be rid of it by month’s end. Then again, we may never want it to go.”
“So, you get turned on by fire and got engaged to a firefighter?”
“I need someone to put all this out. I couldn’t go on as I was before. I’ve stopped smoking now too. I got plenty of meat to smoke besides my lungs. I do the prep work and allow my fiancé to handle the cooking. The food could be better, but it’s not the point. I gave all that up.”
Moving to Chicago, Sloane was engrossed in the city’s culinary scene. Life as a chef was an arduous grind in high-stress kitchens. The standards were high and the competitive nature even more so. The head chefs were a crude mix of anal artist and overbearing drill sergeant. The few who persevered the abuse found themselves closing, clocking-out well into the AM hours. To come down from the stress and adrenaline was a routine of cocaine, cigarettes, pills, and plenty of booze. When the last 4 AM bars closed, Sloane retired home to pass out. You would wake up midday, catch the next bus back to the restaurant, and the cycle repeated. The only certainty in that business was dissatisfaction. Nearly all found their way out eventually. Sloane worked her way up to become a sous-chef for numerous Michelin star establishments before quitting cold turkey and getting engaged to her boyfriend, Olsen.
“Do you miss it?” Cain said.
“I found one of the first cookbooks I ever bought recently. The pages were stuck with duck fat. I miss my passion for cooking, not the industry. I accomplished what I set out to do and left on my terms. That’s all anyone can ask. I didn’t leave the industry because I was above it. I left for the same reason I left my Father’s property. I realized how fucked it was; how fucked I was.” Sloane said.
“But now you run a food truck?”
“This is a venture of commitment, not passion. Like marriage, you realize the differences. I don’t have a need for this to succeed. I did this for Olsen. Some people get into this industry to perfect their craft and be the best in someone else’s kitchen. Others try opening kitchens for themselves. A lot of my colleagues went on their own. I even thought of joining them when I quit.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“They all closed shop. Those that push for passion over making money get pushed out. Everybody in this industry is in the red.”
“Maybe you won’t be in the red forever.”
“What does it matter? What will making green mean to me? I’ll worry about what I’d do without it. I never worried about that when I was broke. I’m happy running my fiancé’s dream on the dime of big banks.”
As a barista approached Sloane’s table, Cain checked his messages. All had gone quiet, even from Ms. Sausage-Toes. Moving about seemed a futile exercise. He was a lonely pusher surrounded by immovable walls. His product seemed no more viable than a piece of cold meat served in a sample cup.
“What’s next?” Sloane said.
“Home to the cat and then nowhere. I’ve been moving slow, and soon I won’t be moving at all. I can’t keep this up. With rent due, the walls are closing in,” Cain said.
“You could work with us. We could use your hustle. If I could teach Olsen to handle meat, I could teach you.”
Brushing his head against Sloan’s shoulder, Cain rose from the table to depart. “I don’t know if it’s the right time. What about quarantine?”
“We will move on; what a food truck lacks in space it makes up for mobility. I’m sure you will too. There’s never a right time to move on. The walls are just in your head.” With a wink, Sloane waved goodbye. “Might try talking to Olsen about it. He’s across the street enjoying cheap beer from an expensive wine menu.”
“When are you closing up?”
“I’m on my own clock, remember. When I’m ready, I’ll shut it down and move to the next spot. I learned that from you.” Then she added, “There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask. What do you get out of all this moving?”
“Money, sometimes at least” he replied.
“But what are you after?” Sloane did not let the silence suffice as a reply. “Hit me up when you have a good answer. You know where to find me.”
Across the street was Split-Rail, a local bar and restaurant serving “New” American cuisine. The decor was a vintage mix of red, brown, and orange hues. The exposed brick and ceiling ventilation added to the rustic exterior. Vintage tables and booths formed the dining space with an open kitchen operating on an elevated section over the seating.
It was midday when Cain entered Split-Rail. White, middle-class families dressed in their Sunday best enjoyed a hearty brunch of fried chicken and biscuits. Their company of children and grandparents juxtaposed with the lot gathered at the bar. These were mainly industry people, an assortment of cooks, servers, bartenders and delivery drivers. These were the weeknight drinkers who left Fridays and Saturdays to amateurs with desperate promises of a good time. But there were no good times to be had. They were here to drink and would continue well past brunch.
As Cain walked along the bar, he overheard the festering chatter. Word of Governor JB Pritzker’s lockdown order had circulated through social media. Tomorrow, all non-essential businesses were to close down. Bars and restaurants would need to scrape by with carry-out and delivery. In the coming days, Split-Rail would lay off nearly all their servers. The industry as a whole followed suit, forcing millions to file for unemployment. It was the beginning of the end for Chicago staples as many were expected to close permanently.
Thirst was general, but the need to drink was evident. Cain made eye contact with Estelle, the female bartender mirroring his pace down the bar. Looking aloft on the lonely ones trying not to spill their drinks, comfortably faking control. Until this morning, everyone felt a sense of control that was now unimaginable.
Cain found an open seat next to Olsen. He looked well-worn in his business attire, collared shirt, slacks, and dress shoes. Estelle approached Cain with a Le Tub Sour and kept his tab open. She garnered noticeable attention from the male patrons sitting nearby—queer notions in silence. Where a man wants to put his tongue is rarely on the tip of it.
“I got a beauty at home you know, handles sausage like you wouldn’t believe. She makes me feel all purple inside. She’s my Irish maiden, and I’m her American prince,” Olsen said. He spoke with elevated tones, to no one in particular. There were no conversations; everything came in an exclamation. He paid no mind to Estelle walking away. She’d be back. He still needed to pay anyway.
Cain allowed his silence to dissipate into the setting. At the end of the bar, a record player glided a needle over the album Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis. A small shelving displayed the cover art.
Another text came from his pocket. Ms. Sausage-Toes said: “We enjoyed our flings with death and war. Now we are wedded to pestilence and pregnant with famine.”
Olsen blurted out again, “What you learn as a fireman is that death is rarely quick. Minutes can feel like forever when you’re really afraid to die. We’re more likely to suicide ourselves than burn. That’s the slow death, our own damn minds. When you’re on-duty you’re just doing your job, and you let the instants fall where they may. Everyone thinks that their world will end in an instant. That’s what this virus will do, make ’em all accept the slow death again”.
The head chef and current co-owner of Split-Rail descended from the kitchen in her stained uniform. She gathered all her staff to the bar and asked Estelle to pour them shots. The bar patrons followed, and even the dish boy Jacob, a known neighborhood pill-junkie, was poured a shot of apricot flavored La Croix. The families dining observed the massive toast curiously. They had no sense of what this all meant. Cain and Olsen raised their glasses in unison as the head chef summed up all that was said and unsaid with a simple cheers.
“To health and wealth,” Cain said.
“Death to Pritzker,” Olsen said.
They stacked the empty shot glasses into sticky leaning towers. The staff dispersed back to their work; the patrons carried on with their drinks, and Cain thought of going home.
Olsen fidgeted uncomfortably as he spoke, “Nothing but bad news. Bad news for my maiden. I’m shutting down the food truck. The juice ain’t worth the squeeze even for my squeeze, but she’ll get used to staying home. They sent all those March Madness kids home, and they work for free. They’re not essential like me. That’s what you poor bastards gotta be in this economy. I fight fires. You better start fighting something. Fight and be essential-“
Cain felt the buzz from his phone. It was a text from Adaline. Turning away from the bar, he squinted at the screen: “I’m sorry for the silence, my love. I lost my phone service but gained so much more. This has been all I hoped it would be. The land is beautiful, and the cities and towns are full of beautiful people. Everything is alive, purposeful, and personal. There are few possessions, and there’s not enough to go around, but they’re thankful for what they got.”
“It sounds different, and I’m glad to hear it. The cat misses you, and so do I,” Cain wrote back.
“I will miss this place when we leave. Our home is expensive and out of sort; the apartment, the country, the whole lot. We could be content here. I know it’s the wrong time and you probably wouldn’t come. You’ve moved around Chicago so much you could never get lost. But imagine what it’s like to get lost here.”
“I don’t want you to get lost. I’m worried you won’t be able to fly back. Everything is getting locked down.”
“I’m sorry for last night’s text. I was out of it. I woke up in a panic and scared my bunk-mate off the bed. I had a dream that we were married with children and that I had abandoned all of you to live here. I was beginning to forget you and did not know what our babies looked like. I just had to send something to ease my mind. I’m sure this sounds wack, but it felt as real as anything that’s happened.”
The last text garnered another read as Cain mulled a response. Then there was a call, but not from Adaline. The commotion from the bar made Cain stand and stride towards the exit and back out on Chicago Avenue. It was a call from Ms. Sausage-toes.
“Hello? Hello? Who is this?” Cain asked.
“You know this voice. I’ve been texting you all day.” Ms. Sausage-Toes said.
“I wasn’t expecting a call. What’s this about?”
“Maybe I just like blowing your phone up. Would you believe it if I said I butt-dialed you?”
“Tell your butt I said hello and goodbye.”
“Don’t hang up. I want to buy what you’re selling.”
“What are you trying to pull?”
“The same thing you’ve pulled everywhere you go.”
“You don’t want anything from me. I’ve wasted a lot of time, and I don’t have much to show for it.”
The tone from the other end changed. “I won’t waste your time, I promise. I’ll buy whatever you have. I just need something.”
“That’s just how needing things works, isn’t it? Good things come to those that wait.”
“I don’t want to be good. Is your traveling companion coming home? Are you waiting for her?”
“I’m waiting to get evicted if the world doesn’t end first.”
“Come through, please. I know you want the money.”
“I don’t want it; I need it.”
“I don’t think you know the difference. I don’t either. I’m not sure if I want to know. I’m not sure if I need to know. We don’t want to go into quarantine, but we’ll need to. We may as well have what we want while we wait.”
“You know I can’t stay long.”
“I’m not trying to keep you. Make me a temporary home, something we can enjoy, something we can throw away.”
“I never know what you mean, but it’s good to hear your voice.”
“I’ll stop texting you if you like.”
“You don’t have to.”
“You know where I’ll be.”
When Cain returned to the bar, the callous clique of quarantine victims were still drinking. But he was there to close his tab and nab a few singles for the bus.
“Outta here so soon?” Estell said.
“I got a cat to feed,” Cain said
“Did you call me yesterday?”
Cain found a bus stop on the corner of North Rockwell Street. He stood loitering alone, his mind stuck on Adaline’s text. He wondered about their babies. They did not physically exist, but she’d spoken them into some form of existence. They came floating through the air to find him like the virus. But what was it really?
The bus route headed east to the city’s core on a road that nearly touched the Midway lake. Most do not go that far for freshwater. The people flowed, looking to sell and get sold. It was a society run on rag fibers hoping to thrive in bliss and agony. They played a cruel joke on themselves by making the rag fibers more valuable the fewer people had it. They could rest easy knowing that good deeds could make one broke and bad deeds could make one a billionaire. But what if they all stopped moving? What if they all went home?
A text from Ms. Sausage-toes read: “They say home is where the heart is, but it’s not true. Home is where the mind is, where your world begins and ends. You are as much stuck in your home as you are in your mind. Home, the beginning, and the end are all in your mind.”
Standing at the bus-stop, Cain felt homeless, mindless, in desperate need of change. He felt no urge to keep moving. His whole life consisted of movement, afraid to bear the confines of a home. He had begun to realize that he already bore it. He simply feared bearing it in the next moment. No matter where he went, he could not move beyond the confines of his mind. He could not move on. He remained still, allowing haste to wane in the wait.
The public transit arrived, its elongated frame covered in commercial ads. Inside were strangers sitting too close together. Their destinations were mere happenstance. They all paid their tolls, clamored for seats, and got off eventually. There was no destination for such movement, only direction. When everyone had checked out, a sole person still remained on-the-clock. Cain could never describe how thankful he was not to be that last person. The doors opened, closed, and with a hiss kept on moving.
* * *
It was near the end of May, marking an eerie restlessness in lockdown. Burrowed into the earth, the Snuggle-Mother’s studio-basement apartment remained cool in the summer humidity. The walls were a thick cement akin to a bunker. The single window peered just over the grass in the front yard. The window, slightly ajar, allowed the breeze of the Chicago night to seep in. The open space proved just enough for the body of a kitty to wriggle through.
Scurrying across the apartment’s front yard, Ms. Sausage-Toes was free from the confines of the only world she knew. Her eyes full with inconceivable observations, her face distinguished by seared whiskers. She had celebrated her first birthday with a cake composed of cat food, slathered with fish paste and topped with a single candle. With a lit flame and voices bellowing a birthday song in her honor, she dug into the carnation before the flame was blown out. Her mouth salivated and her whiskers burned but she could not remember the song.
Ms. Sausage-Toes squeezed through the front fence onto the sidewalk. She was on the move, heading south down North Walcott Avenue. On the streets, everything felt abandoned and lonely. She wanted oh so much for someone to come and make her regret being alone. She was too young to regret the past. The present was regrettable enough. And anyway, how forgettable it was before. What was it like before the virus? She knew she was alive then, but it’s not what she meant.
On the corner of Wolcott and Augusta was an apartment building owned by Jerzy Kenar, creator of the ‘Shit Fountain’ sculptor. He had intended to open a neighborhood cabaret, using the business to fund his nearby Wooden Gallery. He abandoned the pursuit after being denied a liquor license, leaving the building with one unique marker. On its corner was a grotto, a caved-in space surrounded by an iron cage. Atop the caging were the words “Angels Barn Angels” etched in stone. Inside the cage was a wooden sculpture of an angel, modeled after Kenar’s wife.
Ms. Sausage-Toes entered the cage and tepidly approached the angel. The sculpture wore a paper face-mask over the mouth and nose. The pose and eyes presented a yearning gaze out a window. Backing up, Ms. Sausage-Toes began nuzzling her rear end against the angel’s leg, her back arched. She did this instinctively but did not know why. Her one true understanding was of loneliness and yearning. She cried out and one could almost decipher words begging, pleading “Mom, no, no, Mom, no, no, no!”
Erik Campos was born in San Antonio, TX and attended Stephen F. Austin State University where he majored in Fine Arts with a focus on Creative Writing and Literature. He also worked as a fiction editor and contributor for the school literary magazine entitled HUMID. He currently lives in Chicago, IL and works as a coffee roaster for Dark Matter Coffee.